In the second of a series of articles for Development Finance, Bradley Stewart, Head of Growth and Partnerships (DPSA), explains how procurement can foster innovation, resulting in significant benefits for aid and development programmes.
Innovation has long been something of a buzzword in the business world. But the development community also needs to identify new solutions if it is to continue to provide the most effective support to people in need.
From cost savings to faster delivery, from reduced risk to better project outcomes, the benefits are obvious. What’s often less clear is how to achieve the new thinking that will deliver these results.
At DPSA, we believe procurement has a key part to play in developing better responses to natural disasters and conflicts. While in the private sector Research and Development teams are often responsible for innovation, in the aid sector it is often those people who purchase goods and equipment who can provide the new ideas.
Within aid and development contexts, innovation doesn’t just mean creating new bits of kit. It can also mean new ways of doing things. When dealing with large consignments to multiple destinations, for example, even simple changes to established processes can save time and money.
During the Ebola crisis, millions of rubber boots, masks and aprons that arrived in-country hadn’t been sorted before delivery. Packaging goods earlier, into batches containing the correct sizes for staff at individual clinics, would have saved valuable time on the ground.
At DPSA, we sort bulk items destined for specific in-country locations ahead of dispatch. The ‘solution packages’ our logistics team creates are ready for use at the receiving end. It might not sound groundbreaking, but this novel approach helps to save time and money, and enables us to meet critical delivery timelines. It’s just one way in which innovation in procurement can bring wider benefits to customers.
A unique view
Procurement teams have a unique perspective on the humanitarian world. Meeting aid workers to learn of the challenges they face; communicating with diverse supplier networks to keep abreast of tech advances; and receiving intelligence from transport teams regarding new developments in logistics are all in a day’s work. So it’s easy for procurers to join up the dots across different sectors. Their working environment can be a rich breeding ground for new ideas and approaches.
Understanding the challenge
We experienced this recently when working with a programme that sought to reduce infant mortality. Speaking at length with the medical teams on the ground enabled us to be clear about the programme’s goals and the barriers to achieving them. A critical issue was how to reduce the time doctors took to reach mothers and newborns in remote locations.
Under traditional approaches, we would simply have been asked to procure vital signs monitoring products. However, taking time to understand the doctors’ needs enabled us to come up with a better solution. Working with various medical companies and a backpack manufacturer, we’re now producing a lightweight, portable pack containing the necessary medical items. It will make it easier to carry life-saving kit across challenging terrain.
An ongoing challenge for procurement teams is how to speed up response times. Making essential kit more portable and easy to use can help achieve this. Every second counts in an emergency.
Putting technology to new uses
Being innovative is often about taking existing technologies and finding new uses for them. Drones are a good example. Initially designed for military purposes, they are now being used for everything from monitoring floods to improving logistics. The first commercial regular drone delivery service began in Rwanda in 2016, to drop off blood products, for example. Flying, rather than driving, blood, coagulants and plasma to hospitals is helping to cut delivery times from hours to minutes.
Using drones has huge potential within aid and development; for a start, the technology could cut risks for aid workers who currently undertake dangerous journeys by road. Procurers, with their networks of diverse suppliers, are often the first to hear of innovative technologies, so are well placed to seed ideas for new humanitarian uses. The key lies in identifying innovations in one sector that can be adapted to help field workers deliver aid programmes more effectively.
Enhancing logistics processes
Bringing together experts from different sectors has helped to revolutionise cold-chain management. When delivering vaccines in the past, no one could tell if there was a problem until reaching the clinic. On arrival, the driver would upload temperature data gathered during the journey. If the refrigerated unit had become too hot en route, the drugs would have to be returned and destroyed.
Today, a thermometer app makes it possible to monitor refrigeration facilities remotely. If, during a journey the temperature spikes, an operator can alert the driver to change the battery pack or the coolant so that stock is not damaged. This simple technology is helping to save costs (because less stock has to be destroyed) and reduce risk (as better temperature control assures that drugs remain effective).
The innovation draws on the combined know-how of satellite communications companies, app developers and cold-chain equipment providers. It’s a perfect example of the great things that happen when you bring together experts whose paths would not normally cross. Being so well connected puts procurers in a good position to be cross-sectoral matchmakers.
Time is of the essence
If procurers are to use their networks and knowledge to drive the kind of innovation we’ve seen in the above examples, early engagement is critical. Why? Well, having plenty of time before delivery dates enables them to thoroughly understand the programme goals. Then they can go to the market with a problem that needs solving, rather than a shopping list of specific goods and equipment. In this way, procurement teams can inspire new thinking, leading to better solutions.
The primary role of procurement will always be to get items from A to B, to agreed deadlines, in the most efficient way possible. But using procurement to drive innovation can help by reducing costs, cutting delivery times and making processes more efficient. Multiple threats arising from shifting political landscapes, emerging diseases and unpredictable weather patterns, are challenging the successful delivery of aid programmes. Building resilience calls for robust yet nimble solutions that are responsive to changing conditions on the ground.
At DPSA, we believe that procurement teams can contribute to overcoming these challenges. It seems common sense to us that when procurers have time to understand programme goals, seek novel solutions from the marketplace and test them in local contexts, field workers have a better chance of meeting project objectives. That’s why we’re confident that driving innovation through procurement will bring multiple benefits to the aid and development sector in the coming years.
How ‘doing procurement differently’ can drive innovation
Procurement teams can contribute to securing sustainable solutions and delivering greater value for money, for aid and development programmes worldwide by:
• Understanding that innovation can mean applying novel approaches and processes, as well as creating new products
• Ensuring involved parties work together from the outset, challenging the status quo constructively to seek the best result for the end beneficiary
• Integrating procurement with programme design from the outset, so teams understand why items are being procured and source goods appropriate to the local context
• Keeping abreast of new technologies that could be adapted and applied within aid and development contexts
• Understanding modern logistics challenges and how they can be addressed
• Going to the marketplace early so there’s time to stimulate new thinking, create prototypes and test ideas on the ground
Bradley Stewart is Head of Partnerships and Growth at Delivering Procurement Services for Aid (DPSA). DPSA is a service for procuring goods and equipment to support the delivery of aid and development programmes worldwide. DPSA brings together expertise in procurement, international development, supply chain, logistics and security.About this Content